False Equivalencies and Liberalism
There was a lot of talk during the general election cycle about false equivalencies in the coverage of the two major party candidates. The concern was that vastly different actions were treated as similar under the guise of journalistic balance or objectivity: Clinton’s emails treated with the same degree of coverage as Trump’s recorded statement about how he grabs women. But these false equivalencies have moved beyond election coverage. Identity politics, a term that refers to political efforts by groups who are marginalized on the basis of some aspect of their identity, has been taken up by those who occupy the position of the norm–Christians, white people, men–and made equivalent to the political efforts of those whose identities make them the systemic targets of injustice. An opinion piece in The Washington Post argued that Democrats lost this election because of SCOTUS decisions against Christians’ rights to refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings. Jeremy Carl argued last August for the legitimacy of white interests in National Review. New York Magazine reports on the revitalization and politicization of the men’s rights movement in the era of Trump. The idea in each of these cases is that the identities of those who because of their identity are structurally situated as having power occupies an equivalent political position to those who because of their identity are structurally situated as lacking power.
There has been a lot of wringing of hands over the move toward false equivalencies of this kind. I submit that this situation in which every identity is treated as equal to every other one is what is on offer from liberalism, and here I mean liberalism in the sense of the political theory that both parties in the United States affirm. Liberalism, the theories of political life that rest on a social contract of some form, assumes the universal identity of all participants as political. It affirms equality and then under the guise of equality affirms the equal contribution of all participants. This is remarkable in its historical moment when liberalism was a response to monarchy and aristocracy where the landed and the well-born argued they should have more say because of who they were. Liberalism rejected that view, but it supposed that by legally affirming the equality of all parties that it could produce the equality of all parties. Setting aside the notion that one had to already show up as equal in order to be so recognized–sufficiently rational, sufficiently surmounting nature–once recognized as equal by the law, individuals under liberalism were assumed to have equal influence on the law and its functioning without regard for their economic or societal stature. Liberalism individualizes. It takes people out of their solidarity of their group to make them equal to every other person. The law under liberalism operates by a sleight of hand that does nothing to change the economic or social situation of those who are a part of the community. It only affirms that those situations should have no bearing on an individual’s place in political life. By saying these things have no bearing, liberalism has to ignore the embodied historical existence of the people who comprise it.
For these reasons, liberalism can launch no response to the false equivalencies. It has to forget the history and it has to deny the group belonging of those it has produced as individuals in the face of the law and the founding contract without doing anything to address the injustices that follow from the history and the group belonging. But it is this history and this belonging that shows the equivalencies to be false. For example, even Jonah Goldberg at the National Review, in a response to Jeremy Carl, notes that whiteness is not a separate identity, but an identity forged in the context of race-based oppression, “In this context, white isn’t really an ethnicity so much as an ideological construct about racial superiority.” Goldberg agrees that “Western civilization” and “American exceptionalism” is white history and white tradition, but he thinks the tradition can be separated from the “ideological construct about racial superiority.” Here the conservative bailiwicks of tradition and history underwrite a liberal commitment to political equality that claims not to be affected by social or economic inequality and that refuses under the banner of freedom to affect such inequality. Goldberg writes, “American conservatism, unlike traditional European conservatism, is liberty-loving because we are defending the revolutionary ideals of classical liberalism.” He acknowledges what others do not, that identity politics cannot be extended to those who are in the position of dominance by virtue of their identities, but he then wants liberalism to proceed by denying the group power of those identities, as if whiteness is not the most powerful identity but capable of being no identity at all. His fundamental concern is that affirming white identity is a problem because it legitimates left identity politics. But his solution is not to render white identity politically insignificant, which would require undoing the structures that keep white people in power by virtue of being white. Liberalism allows those identities to operate not by affirming them as Carl wants to do but by ignoring them. It is in this way that liberalism promotes and enables false equivalencies.
Image by Antony Theobald